Ken VanMinnen, Principal at Strathroy Community Christian School (SCCS), is a strong believer in tactile, experience based education. That’s one of the reasons he’s excited about SCCS’s Hands-On Wednesdays program.
Hands-On Wednesdays is a ten week program that has grade 6-8 students dabbling in a number of community driven, interactive workshops. Groups can explore mechanics, carpentry and martial arts off site, or stay on campus to study quilting, nutrition, music and theater arts.
“It’s a great experience,” says Abigail, a student at SCCS. “You get to do things with your hands that we never get to do, like build a bridge or cook a meal.”
Ashley, another student at the school, agrees. “I like how I can actually see what I am doing. I like to learn using my hands as it is easier than with paper. And I love to cook!”
Positive reactions like these suggest that the school’s recently expanded Hands-on Wednesdays program is more than just a break from routine—it’s a way for students to explore their gifts and hone new skills in a variety of engaging contexts.
“We really believe that school can sometimes be too institutional, and that there’s a lot of good learning that can happen outside of traditional classrooms,” says VanMinnen. “We want kids to be in their passion areas and taking part in things that they really like to do.”
Over the last few years VanMinnen has been inspired by Ken Robinson’s widely shared TED Talk about the changing paradigms in education. In the lecture, Robinson makes a compelling case for “aesthetic experiences” in school—instances where students’ senses are peaked and they’re fully present in the current moment. According to Robinson, the arts lend themselves particularly well to such learning opportunities.
To be sure, Strathroy’s Hands-On Wednesdays program is one that embraces the arts—but it’s also built on the belief that aesthetic experiences are possible in all disciplines: They may occur while mastering a tricky martial arts move, sanding a rough plank of wood, sewing a quilt, or deconstructing an engine.
These activities are valuable on their own, and they also enhance the learning that goes on within a more traditional classroom environment.
“It’s that moment when students begin to realize why they take courses in school,” says Rick Jurjens, a mechanic from the SCCS community and a Hands-On Wednesdays volunteer.
“They look and they go, oh there’s math involved in this … you can see one or two eyes go oh yeah! ”
This is the third year that Jurjens has welcomed students into his shop for Hands-On Wednesdays. A group of eight boys and one girl will spend ten afternoons with him this fall, learning about the ins and outs of engine repair, oil changes and other topics of that nature.
By week two, the kids are usually ready to dive in, says Jurjens. Others are hesitant, for fear of making a mistake. “Initially, when they get right into it and start tearing things apart, they don’t want to break anything,” he explains. “But I tell them, I don’t care if you break anything, because anything you’re working on is already broken. I keep stuff here knowing that I’ll do this annually.”
Jurjens’ students will spend the bulk of their Wednesday afternoons discovering how large and small pieces of machinery work together. They’ll put things together and pull things apart. They’ll hold familiar and unfamiliar items in their hands, and find out what’s involved in the operation of a motor.
The learning that Jurjens prefers isn’t meant to be just a show-and-tell affair, with the teacher acting as doer and the students standing idly by. “This is hands on,” he says. “If students have a problem, I’ll walk them through it, but then I’ll say, I’m not doing it for you.”
Each student will spend a total of twenty hours participating in Hands-On Wednesdays this year. Although that’s a relatively small portion of the 2014-15 academic calendar, the program is part of much larger, long-term goal.
“This shouldn’t just be ten Wednesday afternoons, and then we’re done and we go back to normal,” says VanMinnen. “We have 185 days to create a life long love of learning.”
As OACS teachers pursue tactile, sensory based activities in their educational practices, they’re investing in a pedagogy that sees school as matter of the hands, the heart and the mind. It’s a holistic approach to learning that treats students as more than just passive receivers of information, and encourages them to explore their gifts through what they hold, make, take apart, and touch.
If you have your own ideas to share about hands-on learning, consider taking part in the good conversations happening on the eCurriculum site! Groups with a special interest in project based learning and differentiated instruction might be a good place to start!
If you’d like to take a look at Ken Robinson’s Changing Paradigms in Education video before joining the conversation, click here.